GHR: Torg

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

First published in 1990 by West End Games, Torg was a game so conceptually dense and full of innovation that it was actually quite difficult to play the game as intended.

Torg’s publisher West End Games was a company that always operated with more than a little swagger. Founded by Scott Palter in 1974 and named for a famously up-scale bar near Columbia university, West End Games started out producing board-games and wargames before dipping their toes into RPGs and creating the legendary comedy dystopia game Paranoia. From there, West End Games went on to secure licenses for a number of famous IPs including Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and James Bond.

The fact that West End Games got hold of these licenses is not in and of itself that impressive… Licenses were much easier to come by back in the 1980s and copyright holders were much less fussy about what game companies did with licensed material. Supplements for ICE’s Middle-Earth Roleplaying game still fetch a decent price on eBay because the writers took it upon themselves to flesh out the details of the Tolkien legendarium. Nowadays that type of overzealous creativity would be met with Cease and Desist Letters followed by agonising sorcerous fire but the 80s were wild man… cheap cocaine, women with huge hair and laidback corporate IP. What makes WEG’s 80s licensing impressive is that older gamers still speak of these games with a good deal of affection. These were not just well-executed tie-ins, they were brilliantly written and lavishly supported games with commercial lifespans of well over a decade. To this day, most old hands would still point to WEG’s D6 Star Wars as the definitive Star Wars roleplaying game.

Torg was WEG’s first attempt at in-house IP development since Paranoia. The game was developed by two very experienced and successful designers named Greg Gorden and Bill Slavicsek. In fact, Slavicsek was such a respected figure in the gaming industry that he wound up as head of roleplaying R&D at pre-Hasbro Wizards of the Coast. These were serious dudes and they built a very serious game.

When I say that Torg was a serious game, I mean that it was conceptually dense. Conceptual density is not the same thing as having a lot of lore as going deep on lore was nothing new in the history of RPGs even in the late 1980s. Games like Runequest and Empire of the Petal Throne were set in worlds as complex as anything found in Fantasy literature, but while lore-rich games had huge lists of races, places, and NPCs each with their own nuanced histories, the richness of the lore came more from its breadth than its depth. I mean… Runequest has a famously detailed setting but at the end of the day it’s a bronze-age Fantasy RPG in much the same way that EoPT is a Fantasy RPG that happens to use an iconography that owes as much to India and South America as it does to Tolkienian England. Torg marked an interesting watershed in the history of game design as while its settings were thin enough to be encapsulated by a series of elevator pitches, each of those pitches was a fragment of a campaign setting that presented a number of conceptual stumbling blocks due to its absolute uniqueness. I’ll approach the question of what made Torg so unique by talking a bit about how my group discovered and used the game.

After introducing my friend-group to RPGs, it took about six months for the first player to announce that they had purchased a game that they were intending to run. The game our friend selected took us all by surprise as it was Torg, a weird title that none of us had ever played or even heard of before. Our friend’s rationale was that Torg was a game that supported every single genre. The theory was that by buying and learning a universal system, our friend would be able to run whatever he wanted without ever having to buy or learn another game.

One of the things that made Torg interesting is that its genre universality had an in-game justification. Torg was set on a version of Earth that had been invaded by aliens from universes which, though somewhat similar to our own, happened to have slightly different physical laws. In order to invade Earth, these aliens opened portals and bombarded the Earth with weapons that altered physical law allowing the aliens to travel across and take control using the powers that were innate to their universes. Different sets of aliens targeted different parts of Earth and so different regions of the planet were altered to resemble the invading worlds and each of these worlds represented a different spin on a recognisable genre. For example, Britain and parts of Scandinavia were invaded by aliens from a Fantasy universe and so the technology level was lowered and the magic level was raised. Similarly, France was invaded by a Cyberpope who raised technology and spirituality levels to the point where the region came to adopt a weird form of cyberpunk Catholic realism where sinister tyrannical priests sported cybernetic implants and Heaven and Hell were operated as online virtual realities.

Torg referred to these altered regions as cosms and WEG produced a load of them, each one more unique and intriguing than the last. The formula for creating a cosm might be described as a double-twist: You start with a genre, and then you apply that genre to a region of the Earth and allow for the fact that said genre would then take on characteristics of the surrounding culture. So, for example, there was a cosm dedicated to Victorian horror but the cosm was based in South East Asia meaning that the setting included South East Asian monsters and the version of Victorian society governing things was influenced by South East Asia rather than South Asia. The second twist came from the fact that while the aliens invaded whole regions and imposed their technology, their values, and the worldview on their human subjects, the level of domination was never total and parts of Earth’s indigenous culture kept on re-asserting itself. For example, in the Fantasy cosm, British streets suddenly featured both elves and dwarves but because the domination was not complete, you had dwarves who worked banking jobs in the City.

There’s no denying that some of Torg’s settings worked better than others: Hyper-futuristic Japan never felt like anything more than Japanese cyberpunk while Fantasy Britain was always a bit too vanilla to really sing. Conversely, the Cyberpapacy remains a great idea as does the Pulp-inspired version of North Africa where Pulp gadgeteers battled a dark pharaoh. Some of the settings even worked without the element of culture-smashing as in the case of the Techno-horror cosm filled with ruined cities and twisted Cenobites while the version of South America that was dominated by aliens inspired by the Chariots of the Gods theories of Erich von Danniken remains an idea so wonderfully loopy that I am amazed nobody has ever bothered to pick it up and have a play with it.

My reason for suspecting that Torg was rarely played as intended is that all of these settings were rich enough to support multiple campaigns in their own right. The guy who introduced me to Torg ran both a vanilla Fantasy campaign and a Pulp campaign without anyone in the group ever feeling the need to go and explore other cosms or regions of the Earth. You could use Torg as a genre-blind universal system like GURPS or BRP and many people did. But it was not the way that Torg was intended to play.

Torg used technology and magic levels to police both genre and access to particular areas. In theory, it was possible to walk into a store in high-tech Japan, purchase a high-powered particle weapon, and then travel to the UK and use it to gun down a dragon. The technology levels prevented you from using high-tech weapons in low-tech settings or casting high-magic spells in low-magic settings by ensuring that high-tech weapons or high-powered spells simply stopped working the second you exited a cosm that supported that level of technology. Aside from serving as a practical barrier to entry for certain types of kit, the technology levels also served to police the boundaries of the different genres: The Fantasy cosm remained a Fantasy cosm because you physically could not use superior technology and so life was forced to conform to the expectations of the genre that characterised each cosm.

One of Torg’s major conceptual stumbling-blocks was that the PCs were intended to exist somewhat outside of this genre marketplace. The idea was that the PCs were all special individuals who had access to the power of Possibility and while Possibility granted players a degree of meta-narrative control in the form of possibility points that allowed you to buy powers and re-roll dice, it could also allow them to operate powers and technology that should have been physically impossible within particular cosms.

Looking back at the scenarios, campaigns and fiction published by WEG, I think the idea was that the players would be characters drawn from a different areas and genres. These characters would then move from place-to-place and genre-to-genre, battling to free the Earth from alien invasion by developing their control over possibility energy and eventually gaining access to the kinds of technology that allowed the invasion to happen in the first place. I imagine a fully-fleshed out Torg campaign would work a little bit like Justina Robson Quantum Gravity novels from the mid-to-late 2000s; a free-wheeling post-modern action-adventure romp in which the boundaries between genres dissolve in a maelstrom of magic and high-energy particle beams.

Even if you did manage to make sense of Torg’s meta-narrative and preferred genre-bending campaign setting, there were also a number of mechanical issues to be reckoned with. The first was that Torg’s characters were quite boring in that they were just a set of stats and a list of skills. The rulebook and setting books tried their best to inject some life into the process by providing a load of colourful templates you could use as starting points for character design but any attempt to move away from those templates revealed the horrible truth about the Torg rules, namely that it made really boring characters.

Character creation and development is another area where possibility energy cropped up as experience points were given in the form of possibilities that could then be used in a variety of ways including boosting dice-rolls, increasing skills, and increasing stats. You could also sign up for powers that had a flat cost per session as well as using possibilities to either cast spells in low-magic settings or run technology in low-tech settings. These rules were amazingly well-integrated and thought through as it meant that pulp powers were basically high-tech gadgets that you paid for in much the same way as you paid for the ability to use high-tech weaponry in low-tech settings.

In fact, integration was one of the hallmarks of Torg’s design as the rules all filtered back towards this weird logarithmic table that allowed infinite scalability using the same set of rules. You want to fire a helicopter-mounted machine gun at a load of orcs? There’s a formula for that. You just rolled an absurdly high roll when attacking a battleship with a lance and wanted to see if you damaged it? There’s a formula for handling that.

Torg’s mechanics were designed to be both smooth and logical but, as with the character creation system, they did tend towards the dull as combat was nothing but people rolling skill-checks until someone fell over. In an effort to liven things up, the designers introduced two sub-systems: One of which was revolutionary and the other was a massive pain in the balls. The pain in the balls came from the fact that Torg was one of those games where you had a number of different forms of damage: At a most basic level you took shock points and while those shock points could translate into damage levels they could also translate into first a K, then an O, at which point you were knocked out. My enduring memory of Torg was of sheets of scrap paper covered in numbers and symbols as people tried to keep track of damage taken and healed. The other more interesting element of combat was the use of cards to inject a level of randomness into what would otherwise become duelling stat-checks. Each round, you pulled a card with a set of modifiers designed to model shifting environmental factors. These types of rules are now pretty standard but at the time they were downright revolutionary even though in practice they were nothing more than flat sets of modifiers. If memory serves, the modifiers were reflexive and a +/- 2 applied to both sides definitely served to alter the flow of battle as you could be up one round only to find yourself being forced into retreat the next. We played with these cards for a while until a series of bad card-flips turned a fun bar-room brawl into a TPK and the players staged a revolt that saw the cards consigned to the box alongside the unused genre-bending short campaign that came with the core rules. This is another area where I am not convinced that we played the game as written as I seem to remember that Torg experimented a bit with the idea of cinematic roleplaying in so far as the adventures were broken down into scenes, which were then subject to the effects of particular cards. I am not sure why we never used this particular sub-system but I can imagine it being the kind of thing that we would have moaned about and I can imagine the GM deciding that the hassle was not worth the book-keeping.

Looking back at Torg, I have really fond memories of the settings but I never got on with the rules and I think our GM struggled with the genre-bending setting that characterised the Possibility Wars meta-narrative and campaign setting. Now that I’m older and more widely read, I am intrigued by the idea of people from radically different worlds and timeframes coming together to battle aliens who have warped the face of reality. In fact, despite having very little time for Doctor Who, I have always quite liked the fact that the series would frequently have ancient warriors making common cause with futuristic soldiers. I am also intrigued by the game’s metaphysics and the implication that the big players in the Possibility Wars use possibility energy to a) impose specific tech levels on non-consenting worlds, and b) stall cultural and technological development at specific points. I very much like the idea of someone deciding to impose Victorian Horror on an unwitting population because it reminds me of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series and the way that Lee’s evil empire requires certain tech levels in order to maintain its engines of colonial oppression. In order to maintain these advanced tech levels, the empire forces the population to enact weird rituals while panicking over every ‘heresy’ because even minor changes in the social order run the risk of changing the laws of physics. Machineries of Empire is partly about the way that the Empire brutally cracks down on ‘heretical’ social deviations out of fear that these deviations will shut off their military technology and I’m intrigued by the idea that the various Possibility lords latch onto specific genres because those genres embody modes of being that allow particular forms of technology and magic. There’s a lot there that could be unpacked in loads of intriguing ways.

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